Kamala Harris photo

Remarks by the Vice President in a Moderated Conversation with John Leguizamo at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Leadership Conference

September 20, 2023

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, everyone. (Applause.)

MR. LEGUIZAMO: Look at all these great faces out there. This diversity is so heartwarming. You didn't see this four years ago, five years ago, to see these leaders -- future leaders, my Latin diaspora out there. It -- it's so heartwarming.

Now, you see my Mets hat. I'm also a Jets fan. So, you know I always have resting asshole face -- (laughter) -- because we're always on the losing end. But it's made me strong.

And I've been in over 100 movies, not all of them good. But I got Sid, the sloth there, you know. That's -- that's a little moneymaker. And Encanto was great. But it was -- it's more exciting, my work -- not doing my work, but being here with -- with the -- Madam Vice President. This is more -- means more to be in the room where things really happen.

So, I want to start with: You spent a lot of time engaging with the Latino community, both in D.C. and on the road. Over the last few months alone, you visited Chicago for UnidosUS convention that --


MR. LEGUIZAMO: Thank you for that, all three of you. (Laughter.)

And went to Miami to engage with young climate leaders, made multiple stops at Latino-owned small businesses, hosted Latino leaders from across the country at your residence. And last week, you launched the "Fight for Your Freedoms Tour" where you are traveling to college campuses across the country to speak with young leaders about the most urgent issues at this moment -- in particular, the fight for our most fundamental freedoms.

And then, just yesterday, you were speaking with students at -- at Reading Area Community College, a Hispanic Serving Institution, HSI, in Pennsylvania.

It's incredible what -- what you're doing and -- and helping us to feel seen, because this is an important moment. I mean, Latinos -- we're 20 percent of the population, 54 percent of registered voters. We're going to decide the next presidential election, and you're giving us the self-worth that we deserve by being here. Thank you.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.)

MR. LEGUIZAMO: What -- what are you seeing and hearing from -- from the American people?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, first, let me say it's an honor to be with you, John. I was -- we were talking backstage, but I know everyone has applauded him, but what you have been doing, in particular, with your most recent project around traveling the country to remind people of the history of Latinos in the United States, the present, understanding how we all stand on the shoulders of great Latino leaders, and how it is so much a part of who we are as a nation.

So, I just want to congratulate you --

MR. LEGUIZAMO: Thank you. Thank you.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: -- for the way you use your artistry and your voice. (Applause.)

So, I'm -- I've embarked on this college tour. And I know that everyone here knows the CHCI, with what you're doing with the intern -- the interns here, with the fellowship program, which you've been doing for years, bringing up and lifting up our young leaders, and -- and I just decided I wanted to get out of D.C. and get on the road and be with our young leaders where they are. And so, I decided to do a college tour, which I started about two weeks now, and then yesterday, the most recent one in Reading, Pennsylvania.

And I just want to say, there are a lot of leaders who are in this room, many of whom have been here working in Washington, D.C. -- toiling in Washington, D.C., to make sure that we propose and pass public policies that are relevant to all people, that give dignity to all people, that understand who the people of our country are and celebrate our diversity in a way that hopefully is a step toward understanding what we should celebrate in terms of unity.

That being said, there are lots of challenges that we're facing right now as a country. And when I meet with our young leaders, and they're all over -- and I'm going to give a particular shout out to the Gen Z. (Applause.)

I knew I'd get that response. They are brilliant. They are practical. They are engaged. They care deeply, but they also aren't going to let us waste any time with what needs to happen in our country.

And so, I decided to travel the country meeting with our young leaders, among many. We have youngish leaders, we have leaders who consider themselves young, we have leaders of all -- all types. (Laughter.)

But in particular, most recently, on the college tour, I'm meeting with our young leaders. And, you know, it's important for us to realize that for so many of them, in their lifetime, they've only known the climate crisis.

In their lifetime -- I've been asking, actually, on the college tour for a raise of hands, how many of them, from kindergarten through high school, ever had to have at school on the first day of school -- participate in an active shooter drill. First day of school, where they learn the name of their teacher, they learned where their bathroom is, and they learned how to hide quietly if there's an active shooter. You would be shocked at the number of hands that go up -- the majority of the students.

In their lifetime, they have witnessed the highest court in our land, the United States Supreme Court, take a constitutional right from the people of America -- from the women of America, such that they will know fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers.

When I look at who our young leaders are, they are so clear about what is at stake, and they are prepared to demand change in a way that always has been a guiding force and an inspiration for the rest of us. So, that's what I'm seeing in our country.

And, you know, as I travel, I think everyone here knows we are also witnessing what I believe to be an intentional, full-on attack against hard-fought, hard-won freedoms and rights.

And the counterweight, then, to that -- the counterweight to what I would and sometimes do describe as a venom that is coursing through our country -- the antidote will be among those young leaders and all the leaders in this room to fight back against it, but not fight because we're fighting against something purely but because we're fighting for something.

And so, in spite of what we might see on the evening news that causes us to have great concern about what's happening, I hope I can share with everyone through this bit of my conversation that there's a lot of good stuff happening in our country and a lot of reason to have hope and optimism about where we are heading.

MR. LEGUIZAMO: Agreed, agreed. I feel like this moment, this inflection point that we're at, has galvanized us, has lit a fire under our butts that we -- maybe we were asleep at the helm a little bit.


MR. LEGUIZAMO: But now we know we have to be alert, and we have to be proactive. So, in a way, it's kind of good.

Now, the next -- next question: Now, you know, business is huge for us Latinos. That -- that's our number one focus. We contribute $2.8 trillion to the GDP annually.


MR. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, applaud yourselves. Applaud yourselves. (Applause.)

We have $2 trillion -- $2 trillion of buying power. Eighty-seven percent of small businesses are started by Latinos, and that's the driving force of American industry. Sixty-nine percent of housing is Latinos purchasing. If we were our own country, it would be the seventh-largest economy in the world, bigger than France -- equal to France, sorry -- equal to France, bigger than -- than Britain, bigger than Italy, bigger than Brazil.

And yet, we're not getting the bang for our buck. Like my grandfather used to say, you know, "You -- as a Latino man, you have to work three times as hard to get half as far." And -- and that's the truth because, even though Latinos start all these small businesses, venture capitalists don't come to them.


MR. LEGUIZAMO: They can't get the bank loans to grow their businesses.

So, Madam Vice President, expanding on economic opportunity is a critical issue for the Latino community. And you have been focused on this, especially through your work to support small businesses.


MR. LEGUIZAMO: You secured over $12 billion for community banks that help entrepreneurs access that capital that they need to be successful. And you are leading the administration's work to partner with the private sector to support minority-owned businesses.

Can you can you tell us more about that, a little bit more?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, you outlined it exactly right. And I'll add to the statistics that you shared. Small businesses employ at least half of the private-sector workforce. Small-business owners and the people they employ are -- are almost a majority population when we're looking at the private sector.

And what we have been seeing in the last couple of years is that one out of every four new small businesses is led by and owned by a Latino small-business owner. We are seeing exponential growth within the Latino small-business community, led in large part by Latinas, who are doing extraordinarily creative work, everyone -- (applause) -- in a range of activities that are small businesses.

You know, it's -- it's clichéd and it's a little stereotypical to talk about -- you know, when we think about minority small-business owners, and let's be more specific about Latino small-business owners -- yes, it is restaurants, but it is so much more.

It is about -- I'm meeting young and youngish small-business owners who are entering the clean energy economy, those who are starting tech firms, those who are engaged in extraordinary innovation, those who are doing contracting in a number of ways.

So, when we think about small businesses, especially when we're talking about minority communities, especially when we're talking about the Latino community, let's never get trapped into our -- some stereotype about what kinds of small businesses we are talking about, because we are talking about a variety.

What I'm also saying is exactly your point, that, by my calculation, only about 2 percent of venture capital, capital investments are in Latino small businesses -- 2 percent. And we know that there are a variety of challenges to access to capital, and one of them is access to the decisionmakers -- and so the relationship issue -- but there are also the stereotypes about who can do what and who -- what they look like.

And so, the -- what I love are community banks, because they are based in the community, they are of the community, they understand the skills, the capacity, the mores of the community. And it's one of the most effective ways to then invest in small businesses. And by small businesses, I mean a couple of people up to over 100 people.

The other piece that I feel very strongly about in terms of access to capital: It's not only to help somebody start up a small business but to grow that business, which includes what we must do to -- to create access to financial literacy.

You know, there are very few of us who grew up in a household where people were engaged in business. It's not something we naturally necessarily learned. But it is absolutely something we can acquire as knowledge and a skill, but we should teach it.

And what I am seeing as an extension of all this work is a thriving community of business leaders who are not only leaders in business, but civic leaders, community leaders, mentors hiring locally. And so, when you think about the residual impact, it impacts our entire economy.

But I want to make one critical point again, and it's about how we think about access to capital, especially when it comes to minority communities and specifically here about Latino communities. It's not only about making sure people have a job. It's about creating opportunity to acquire and grow wealth. And that's very important. (Applause.) That's very important.

It's about understanding the ambitions and aspirations of a community. And, yeah, everyone wants to be able to have a job that allows them to pay the bills and get through the month, feed their children. But doing that is not enough to meet the needs and the aspirations and the ambitions of the people.

And so, that's how I think about it when I think about the work that we are doing and need to still do to create opportunities for people to grow their wealth and to create, then, a stronger economy for the benefit of all of us.

So, that's how I think about the work. And -- and I'm very excited about it because we are seeing progress.

One of the things that President Biden and I have done, intentionally and very early on, we've made clear that we were going to increase by 50 percent federal contracts for minority-owned businesses. Very important. (Applause.)

MR. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, yeah.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Because think about federal contracts, and then combine that -- there are a lot of folks who are here in D.C., and you're familiar with the things -- the titles of all these bills, the -- I'm always reluctant to talk about these titles. But anyway, IRA, Bipartisan Inflation -- I mean Infrastructure Act, right?

So, on clean energy, economy, and climate alone, by my calculation, we are investing $1 trillion over probably the next 10 years that will hit the streets of America: manufacturing jobs, clean energy, jobs, tech jobs, federal contracts that are going to be associated with that.

And when somebody gets and qualifies for a federal contract, talk about the opportunity not only to contribute to the strength and the building of our country and our economy, but their personal ability and for their family to create wealth and intergenerational wealth.

So, we are absolutely focused on a number of things, including, by 50 percent, federal contracts to minority-owned businesses, understanding that because of the other accomplishments we've achieved through things like the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, those are going to be about all of the new jobs that are about construction and manufacturing.

And I'll just add as a specific point to reinforce that: The -- over 70 percent of manufacturing companies in the United States employ 20 or fewer people. They're small businesses.

So, when we talked about the fact that we're -- we've now created -- which we have, as our administration -- over 800,000 new manufacturing jobs; when you see -- when we're out there showing about shovel in the ground and these -- these construction jobs and these infrastructure projects starting, see the math on that. This can be a very critical moment.

And part of what I would ask all of the leaders here to do is help us get the word out to all of these businesses to help them know that they have the right to apply for and qualify for federal contracts to do this work.

MR. LEGUIZAMO: Well, thank you for the work you're doing because that's -- my grandfather would thank you. Because that -- that was the difficulty for Latinos is that though we -- we're greatly entrepreneurial, we're not getting to that next level --


MR. LEGUIZAMO: -- and creating that generational wealth --


MR. LEGUIZAMO: -- that that we deserve, being that we give so much to the country, and we're not getting it back.

Now, Madam Vice President, you often talk about how attacks on our fundamental rights and freedoms are connected. This makes me think about recent attacks on teaching our full true history. Not of fiction -- the attacks on critical race theory, book banning.

And Plato said -- Plato said, "He who controls the storytelling controls the state." And only 5 percent of children's books have Latino faces. You're more likely to see an animal, a dog or a cat, than a Latin boy or girl's face on a children's book -- yet we're 30 percent of the United States public schools, the students are.

Arizona has banned Latin history for the last 10 years, and it's 30 percent Latino. Texas is 40 percent Latino, and teachers are only allowed to teach Latin History one day a year.

Now, talk to us about how you see --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Don't forget Florida.

MR. LEGUIZAMO: Oh, yeah, yeah. (Laughter and applause.)

I try. I try to forget it, but nobody lets me. Yeah, I just liked the 305. That's it. (Laughter.)

Talk to us about how you see this issue in the moment we're in.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Attacks on fundamental freedoms, including the right of our children and our nation to learn America's full history. And, look, the reality of it is that some of it may be difficult for some people to hear, but to gloss over it and to deny it is to deny fact and to then forever be guided by falsehood, which is never productive, right?

So, that is about teaching America's full history in terms of legal discrimination against populations of people, including Latinos, especially when they were recent immigrants. It means teaching America's full history about who were the leaders, who were the icons, who were the ones who -- who led movements. You know, my -- my aunt -- my Aunt Mary was actually -- so, I grew up in the Bay Area and -- in California -- (laughter and applause).

Bay Area.

MR. LEGUIZAMO: Represent.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: (Laughs.) And -- and she was one of the founders of, at San Francisco State, the Black Studies Department, and then worked with her colleagues the year later to create one of the first in the country -- it was then called Chaci- -- Chicano Studies Department. (Applause.)

And the Chicano Studies Department at San Francisco State -- you should actually see the history on that, because it was -- and they've since named -- renamed it Latino Studies. But early on, that -- you know, and I'm a Californian, so this was, you know, early on how we -- (laughter and applause) -- but we grew up -- I grew up with a full accounting of the contributions.

And to your point, I look now at what's happening, where there's supposed to be progress, and instead these extremist so-called leaders are trying to take us back. They're trying to erase America's history, both the good and the bad parts. They're trying to suggest to our children that diversity is somehow not laudable, when we know diversity is our strength. Our unity is our power.

Look what they're doing -- extremist so-called leaders who are daring to suggest that studying and prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion is somehow a bad thing. They're literally trying to change the characterization of an effort to pay attention to who's not in the room and understand that when we have a full representation of who the people are, the decisions, the discourse, the dialogue that occurs in that room will be so much richer for the betterment of everyone.

They're saying that we should not teach equity and prioritize equity. (Applause.)

So, that would overlook and deny the fact that, "Hey, yeah, we want everyone to have an equal amount or access to equal, but not everyone starts out on the same base." And we got to pay attention to that, because otherwise you're just perpetuating inequities to say everyone gets an equal amount if everyone doesn't start out on the same base.

They're denying inclusion, which, again, is about paying attention to, "Hey, did you notice everybody in this room looks exactly like everybody else and all the people who are on the wall who have been around here for the last hundred years -- (laughs) -- and maybe we should pay attention to who's not in the room, and it might be a good thing to open the door and let people in and invite them in."

So, John, when I look at what's happening in our country -- and back to your point about we cannot be passive observers right now. We've got to see the writing on the wall, got to see what's happening.

You know that old story about the two frogs and the pots of water? Okay. So, here it goes. You're a good storyteller. I'm going to tell you a quick story.

So, two frogs and two pots of water. So, in one pot of water, you drop the frog in, and you slowly turn up the heat. And that frog will be like, "Oh, it's getting a little warm in here." And then that water starts to boil, and that frog perishes.

In the other pot of water, you turn up the heat to the point it's boiling. You drop the frog in it, it'll jump right out. Let's not be that first frog. Let's not be that first frog. (Applause.)

MR. LEGUIZAMO: I don't want to be that first frog. I'm jumping out, yeah.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I mean, you look at just most recently what happened with the DACA decision.


THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right? I mean, we're going -- we're going to keep fighting against it.

But good policies, morally correct and right policies and how they're being attacked and -- and there are attempts -- unapologic- -- unapologetic attempts to undo progress. We have to see what is happening -- what is happening in front of us, and we have to step up and speak out.

MR. LEGUIZAMO: You have to get loud. Absolutely. I believe that. (Applause.)


MR. LEGUIZAMO: You have to be proactive. We can't just be -- it's not -- democracy is not a spectator sport.


MR. LEGUIZAMO: Earlier you mentioned how our fundamental rights and freedoms are under attack, right? One of those is a woman's freedom to make decisions about her own body.

From the Dobbs ruling to state abortion bans, what's -- what's the administration doing to protect women's health and reproductive rights?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, let's start with this. The highest court in our land, the United States Supreme Court -- the court of Thurgood Marshall and RBG -- just took a constitutional right that had been recognized from the people of America, from the women of America. And very shortly thereafter, laws have been proposed and passed in states around our country that would criminalize healthcare providers, that would punish women, that would make no exception even for rape or incest.

And on that last point, you know, we're a bunch of grownups. And this is real in terms of what's happening in our country. And so, I want to emphasize a point.

As many of you know, I spent a large part of my career as a prosecutor, and one of the reasons I became a prosecutor is because I learned in high school that my best friend was being abused by her stepfather. And I told her, "You have to come live with us." I called my mother. My mother said, "Yes, she has to come live with us." And she did.

So, the majority of my career as a prosecutor was focused on crimes against women and children.

The idea that in some of these states, they would propose no exception, even for rape or incest, so they're basically saying: After an individual has survived a crime of violence to their body, a violation to their body, that the government would tell her, "And you have no choice about what happens to your body next." That is immoral.

And this is what's happening around our country. And on this subject, I think it is really important that we all agree: One does not have to abandon their faith or deeply held beliefs to agree the government should not be telling her what to do with her body. (Applause.)

MR. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, yeah.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: If she chooses, she will consult her priest, her pastor, her rabbi, but the government is not in a better position to tell her what is in her best interests than she is to know.

And so, when I think about this issue, John, you know, this is not just some intellectual, academic issue, because right now in our country, there are countless people, many of whom I have met, who are silently suffering.

And what we also know, by the way, the majority of Latinos agree that the government should not be making this decision. (Applause.) Right?

And so, look, elections matter. Local elections matter because if you're in a jurisdiction where -- that has criminalized healthcare providers, who is your local prosecutor matters. If you are in a state that is proposing and passing some of these outrageous laws, obviously, who your state legislator is matters -- your AG, your governor.

And then, of course, it matters who is president of the United States, because Joe Biden has been very clear that when the United States Congress puts back in law the protections of Roe v. Wade, he will sign that bill. Elections matter. (Applause.)

MR. LEGUIZAMO: Absolutely. It -- it's so true.

We Democrats have been a little bit asleep on the legislative fights and the small elections. We've let that pass. But I think we're woke now, and we're understanding the importance of winning these smaller elections that -- that have huge effects in states.


MR. LEGUIZAMO: And now, Madam Vice President, thank you so much. We -- we're facing so many challenges and have a lot of work to do.

Now, what -- what gives you optimism for the work ahead?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I'll go back to where I started: our young leaders. They really do. And all of us -- we wouldn't, all of us, be here in this room together if we weren't invested in the present and the future of our country.

You know, there's so much that is about that -- that -- about the fight for freedom and liberty and justice and equality that is just about our true faith and belief in the principles upon which our country was founded. These are foundational principles that we will be a nation that values freedom and liberty.

And when I say freedom, that includes the freedom to just be -- free of hate, free of fear, free to thrive, to be, to have ambition. And what gives me optimism is that I think most people agree that it's worth fighting for these things because we love our country. We love our country. And it's worth fighting for.

And I think most people do believe that. And although we might be seeing some full-on and loud attacks on these freedoms and, by extension, on our democracy, I do believe that people are prepared and will always be prepared to stand up in defense of what is right and what is good and what we believe ourselves to be as the United States of America.

MR. LEGUIZAMO: Awesome. Thank you. (Applause.)

Thank you for that. Thank you.


MR. LEGUIZAMO: What a pleasure. (Applause.)


MR. LEGUIZANO: Awesome. Thank you.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Take care, you guys. (Applause.)

Kamala Harris, Remarks by the Vice President in a Moderated Conversation with John Leguizamo at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Leadership Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365251

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